Monday, November 25, 2013

Thoughts on Symbolism in Writing

This evening I ran across an interesting discussion on symbolism in fiction. You can read it here.

My mind immediately returned to my senior year of high school when I was taking what was then called "advanced placement" English. By taking that course, I also received freshman college credits; at the time it was one of only two courses available at Lord Botetourt in which one could partake of such dual enrollment.

My high school teacher at that time was Connie Shotts, who, I think, must have had her Ph.D. because she insisted on being called Dr. Shotts. I suspect there was an English professor trapped in a high school there.

At any rate, I loved my Senior AP English class and I loved Dr. Shotts, though she was not a warm and fuzzy teacher, as I recall. The class was small, maybe 15 students, and I did well in there; I won the Senior English Award, anyway. That's another story.

The article I read this evening about novel symbolism and whether or not authors intend such things is what brought all of this to my memory, because this was a subject of intense disagreement between Dr. Shotts and I. She was sure she was right about symbolism in literature, and she was adamant that writers knew what every word meant, that every placement was intentional, with nothing left to imagination or subconscious placement. Since I wanted to be a writer, and had written things that I had turned in and had them marked with notations like "wonderful symbolism" when I had never meant any such thing, I knew better.

The power of the creative mind might work out the symbols but I did not believe then, and don't believe now, that every single word or symbol in a piece of work was consciously placed there by a majority of authors. I am sure there are some who are meticulous enough to create works where they have made sure their evil characters have yellow eyes and the good ones have blue, but I also know there is no way that anyone can fathom what a reader will find in a piece of work.

I can't count the number of times I've written articles and had them reported back to me, often with incorrect facts or fallacies, because people didn't realize I wrote the story. Readers read wrong sometimes. They skim, they don't pay attention, they read with a slant that no author can predict. Sometime I am amazed at what people take away from something I wrote. Sometimes it is completely the opposite of what I wrote. I will go back and look and see that I wrote what I meant, but that was not how it was read.

Writing and being creative are wonderful, personal things. As communication methods, they are sometimes the only link we have to the past and present, and to those future souls who want to know who we were during this time in history. Making art in whatever shape and form is transcendent and spectacular. Of course the artist doesn't know what each spirit will see in every single piece, and a writer has no idea how every eye will interpret specific words and phrases. We all bring bits of ourselves and our own histories to the art and the writing that we seek out and review. Nothing is static; it all flows freely, a wave of thoughts crossing those unseen boundaries of time and space.


  1. I'm with you on this one. Sure, some writers may write symbolism with intent, but for the vast majority I think it just happens, writing being a process of discovery and all. Your last three paragraphs bring to mind a quote by Edmund Wilson: “No two persons ever read the same book.” Or article or short story. We are all different, with different experiences and likes and dislikes. What I get out of a book/article/short story isn't necessarily the same thing you would get out of it.

  2. great link. wonder where that student is now.


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